Halfway through writing this piece I was informed that two people I knew were among the victims. Professor Willem Witteveen, a wonderful man, politician and teacher with great ideals who I respected so much, and his daughter, Marit Witteveen, who studied Liberal Arts and Sciences just like I do, a programme that was founded by her father. As terrible as you can imagine it feels right now, I decided not to change this post. These things still remain important, even if people around me have lost someone they care about very dearly. Willem Witteveen, who was strongly against war, founded a programme advocating and based on open-mindedness, and it is through that programme that I think the way I do. I cannot let that open-mindedness falter now.
My sincere condolences to all friends and family of the victims.
When Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crashed in Eastern Ukraine, 298 people died. I don’t have to tell you how dreadful that is. But it’s not what I’m going to talk about today, because these 298 people might not be the last to die from this disaster. There are bigger implications to this, with people in Western countries immediately accusing Russia, demanding more sanctions and bringing the world closer to an even more dangerous conflict. The questions, then, are: whose fault was this crash? And what does that mean for the world?
Rather predictably, who is to blame at first sight seems to depend on who you ask: Western news readers, the media and even US politicians point their millions of fingers at Russia, or perhaps more specifically, Putin, while Russia blames Ukraine and Ukraine blames Russia. It’s a complicated circle, but what seems clear from very reliable evidence (which, admittedly, is being circulated in Western media, beware of biases) is that pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists had thought they shot down a military plane at the same time as when flight MH17 crashed to the ground. There seems to be plenty of reason to conclude that the Ukrainian separatists are to blame.
But that’s not where Western fingers are pointing. They are pointing, in all their anger, to the Kremlin in Russia. Why? Because most likely, the weapon used by these Ukrainian separatists was from Russian origin, and, from a Western point of view, deliberately supplied to them by the Russian military to aid them in their fight against the Ukrainian regime. It is, therefore, Putin’s fault for giving the rebels these weapons rather than de-escalating the crisis as the West thinks he should.
There are many things wrong with these conclusions, even though many people in the West seem to be drawing them, and not least because we still have so little information. After all, we seem to be under the assumption that the Ukrainian separatists are on one line with Russia, which is an incredibly biased view. We see the entire region as “the enemy”, in the exact same way as we saw all “the Communists” as one big power block in the Cold War. But that was never true then and it certainly isn’t true now. Russia and China hated each other while we thought they were on one line, and in a similar way, not everything the separatists do is supported by the Kremlin.
Ukraine is tied up in a civil war, and civil wars aren’t pretty. They aren’t perfectly organised and they don’t happen in an orderly, overseeable manner. They are often impulsive and based on anger and hatred rather than with a good command structure. To speak of “the pro-Russian separatists” is already stretching it, assuming too much organisation, but to include the Russian government in this picture is simply a step too far. Mistakes and wrongdoings by these Ukrainian separatists are not Russia’s doing. Russia can distance themselves from it and they can publicly state their discontent with whatever the separatists have done, but they cannot control them.
What happened was terrible, of course, but it could have happened to the West too. The US has the habit of giving a whole lot of weapons to the countries it supports, but if it had been a US weapon that had shot down a civilian plane (which, by the way, actually happened), the West would not have been reacting in this way. We would have called it a grave mistake, some condolences would have been given, and that was it. So let’s not blow this up in a political way just because we have the opportunity to blame Russia. Anger is not the way to grieve, especially not if it could lead to war.
World War I started when a single Serbian nationalist assassinated the Archduke of Austria. We cannot let a mass-murder by a small group of Ukrainian separatists lead to a new one.
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